The Fourth World and the Marxists

The Fourth World and the Marxists


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



New Deal politics of the Roosevelt administration emerged . . . to curtail the influence of socialist forces . . .

all these programs were interlaced into a loose social safety net

that keep poor and working people afloat during many hard economic times.



The Fourth World and the Marxists

By Amin Sharif 


The fall of the Berlin Wall signified both the economic and ideological triumph of capitalism over Soviet-style communism. Since the days of the Communist Manifesto, there had been dire predictions of the end of the world-wide capitalist system and its replacement by Communism, the dictatorship of the working class and its allies. 

But then in less than 100 years, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics [that is, Soviet Union or Russia] collapsed under its own bureaucratic weight and the conflict between the United States of America and the Soviet Union, known as the Cold War, was over. That is to say that in a moment, the conflict that had separated the world into Capitalist, Socialist, or Non-aligned camps resulting in the  Berlin Airlift, Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, and a thousand other known and as yet unrevealed skirmishes between America and Russia was rendered a relic of the past. 

The principle conflict in the world has now shifted from the Cold War to the West’s conflict with China, another communist state, and radical Islam. The nature of the conflict with China is principally economic though that might change in the future. The conflict between the forces of radical Islam and the West is a violent clash of ideologies and spheres of influences that have broken out into conventional (the invasion of Iraq) and unconventional (insurgency and terrorist) warfare.

This seismic shift in world events should have precipitated a whole new line of thinking among the Marxist Left. But, outside of an anemic anti-war movement, much of the Old Left has remained stagnate and locked in the ideological glacier of Marxism-Leninism. And while Marxism may still be a valid tool to analyze class conflict in a general sense, its ability to analyze and adapt to new political situations has been shown to be a weakness. 

Nowhere is there a greater example of this weakness as in the position of taken by many Marxist-Leninists on the question of race in America. It has always been the contention of orthodox Marxism-Leninism that class struggle—the contradiction between those who own the means of production (i.e. factories and other industries) and the industrial working class—had to be solved first before issues of race could be addressed. The fact that today the industrial working class in America has been greatly reduced in number and is on the verge of being replaced by a new technological and service sector has not altered the orthodox Marxist line. 

Nor have the apparent and long standing racist tendencies of the white worker in America given the Marxists any pause about how class struggle within the United States should be carried out and to what end. It is perhaps the glaring flaws in both Marxist theory and practice that have made Marxist politics a pariah within the black community today.

Yet this was not always the case. It is well known that the Communist Party of America defended the Scottsboro Boys when the NAACP remained on the sidelines. Many black intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance such as Claude McKay and Langston Hughes visited the Soviet Union. Communist agitation among the white working class resulted in decades of strikes for unionization, higher wages, and the eight-hour day in America. 

Indeed, the New Deal politics of the Roosevelt administration emerged in part as a strategy to curtail the influence of socialist forces within the working class. Because the liberal policies of Democratic administrations took hold, the conflict between the American worker, especially the white worker, and capitalism was softened.  Unions were recognized, pension plans were established, and the minimum wage, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and WIC—all these programs were interlaced into a loose social safety net that keep poor and working people afloat during many hard economic times.

More importantly laws were put in place that allowed for direct intervention by the government in labor disputes. These laws, by themselves, were usually enough to assure that the conflict between the more radical elements of the labor movement and capitalism did not escalate out of control. It was precisely by controlling the tension between the American worker and the capitalist sector that the United States was able to sideline Marxist forces. 

Outmaneuvered by the flexibility of the capitalist tactics, much of the social and political energy of the working class that should have been inherited by the Marxists has been appropriated by Democratic Party liberalism and the American union movement. And even today, these two forces—unions and the Democratic Party—are seen by many American workers as their salvation.. Thus, impotency at home and defeat abroad have rendered the Marxists an irrelevant force in American politics.

As the influence of the Marxist on the white working class was waning, the Civil Rights Movement was beginning to pick up steam. African-Americans who lived in the South had decided to challenge a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow segregation that threatened to lock them and their children into a place of “permanent inferiority.” In the North, African-Americans were not subjected to the intense racism that existed in the South. But they were still denied decent jobs and housing, thus making economic advancement hard to achieve. One would think that the Marxists would have found fertile ground among the discontented African-American. 

But it was precisely because Marxist forces were tied up in redeeming a reactionary white working class that they were unable to successfully recruit enough African-American surrogates to make a case for radical action in the South. Subsequently, the Civil Rights Movement under white and Black middle-class leadership emerged primarily reformist in nature and anti-Marxist in outlook. Through the entire Civil Rights era, the Marxists were left on the sidelines consigned to making pronouncements about black self-determination that had little or no impact on the black masses.

By the end of the Civil Rights era, a new radicalism had emerged in the United States. The Black Power Movement spawned the Black Panther Party. SNCC had been radicalized and Black nationalists groups had called for armed revolution. On the Left, white groups like the Weathermen and the Revolutionary Union as well sought to transform society by revolutionary action.  There then emerged a period where Marxism-Leninism and the political writings of Mao Tse-Tung were favored among young radicals. 

But, with the wholesale destruction of Marxist influenced radical and revolutionary groups within and without the black community, Marxism once again fell out of favor. Today, there are no Marxist-Leninist organizations that can be considered as part of the leadership of the American working class in general or the black community in particular. As long as they hold to their traditional line of class struggle being led by white industrial workers, a diminishing class in America, Marxists will never succeed in accomplishing anything.

When Marx issued the Communist Manifesto in 1848, it was addressed almost exclusively to the European working class. The Manifesto begins with this statement:

A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism. All powers of the old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police spies.  

It was in Europe where the great industrial revolution was taking place that the conflict between labor and capital was the sharpest.  Marx and Engel’s described the epoch as a time when:

Society as whole is more and more splitting into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other—the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

There can be little argument that Marx and Engel’s description of the historic development of the general conflict between the capitalist class who own industries and the working class who are forced by necessity to sell their labor for a wage is accurate. Even today, this general conflict exists in the post-industrial period. But, as we have mentioned in the case of the New Deal, there has been, until recently, a “legacy” of social programs that have softened the general conflict between labor and capital in the United States. So much so that today one can not speak of the American worker as having any semblance of working class consciousness. Indeed, the American worker’s allegiance, especially that of the white worker, is more likely to be to the American nation and his race than to any other member of the working class.

This lack of working class consciousness is evident domestically by the white working class’s continued support for the Republican Party which has as its goal the disassembling of the very social safety net and unions that so many workers rely on during times of economic crisis. Internationally, it is the lack of working class consciousness among whites that allows them time and time again to be manipulated into supporting wars of aggression around the world, for example, in Vietnam and Iraq. While willing to admit these reactionary characteristics exist among white workers in America, many Marxists still hold out hope that the latent revolutionary character of the white working class can be somehow stimulated.

Because the general conflict between capital and labor in America had been softened, the sharper conflict between the African-American (Fourth World) people and the American political system concerning matters of race and class emerged in the United States. If the general conflict between the American capitalism and the working class as a whole were in play today, there would be, by Marxist analysis, no need for a separate nationalistic movement on the part of African-Americans to resolve their problems of race and class on their own. But, since African-Americans have no class ally in their struggle to end racial and economic oppression, the only strategy left to them is one where they must defend both their class and racial interests by themselves, at least until circumstances dictate otherwise.

This is not to say that all members of the white working class are racist and will never support the struggle of Fourth World African-Americans. There are and will always be individual members of the white working class who will support the cause of justice whether it involves Fourth World Latinos, Hispanics, Asians or African-Americans. However, these are individual allies of the Fourth World Community. But it will take more than individual white support to end racism and economic oppression in America. There must be a general acceptance among the majority of white Americans that a program of social and economic justice must succeed if the problems of the oppressed in America are to be resolved. That this general acceptance must be rooted in the white working class whose general interest are the same as the Black working class is a given.

Progressive thinkers within the Fourth World community have always lamented the blindness that seems to exist among the Marxists to the interplay of race and class in America. They have continued for nearly one hundred years to insist that the general conflict between capital and labor is the most important struggle facing the working class.

In the long run, this might be true. But, in the short term, it is where the conflict between capitalism and labor is sharpest that matters. In the United States, the conflict between capital and labor is sharpest among the Black working class. Indeed, even in the international sphere, the conflict between the working and oppressed people of the world is sharpest in the non-European world. The anti-colonial struggles brought socialist regimes into power in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. While in Europe, the working class has brought no such radical change to the West since the Russian revolution. And, although the Marxists profess nothing but disdain for radical Islam, this conflict too is characterized by a sharpness between itself and international capitalist forces that is a hundred times more intense than anything going on between the Western working class and capitalism.

And here we need to make clear by what we mean by “where the conflict between capital and labor is the sharpest.” By this term, we mean where capitalism is the most oppressive and exploitive. In the United States can there be any doubt that the most oppressive and exploitive relationship between capital and labor involves Fourth World people as a whole and African-Americans in particular. In the case of both Third and Fourth World, Marxist analysis from the very beginning was flawed. For, Marx and Engel mistakenly declare that:

National differences and antagonism between peoples are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and into the conditions of life corresponding thereto.

This may have been true for the developing industrial countries of Europe in 1848. But, just the reverse was and is true for the darker people of the world. In 1848, the great period of European colonialism was under way. Slavery was still practiced in America. Pseudo-scientific jargon and literary romanticism was converting the African into an animal and the Indian into a “noble savage.” Everywhere in the world the differences between men were breaking out until as Fanon puts it, the white world transformed the darker people into the “quintessence of evil.” It is this transformation of the darker people that is not subject to Marxist analysis. It is a feature of the general conflict between capital and labor that stand both within and outside of class struggle. In the matter of decolonization as cited in the Wretched of the Earth, this transformation necessitates that for anti-colonial movements:

Everything up to and including the very nature pre-capitalist society, so well explained by Marx, must here be thought out again.

Within the advanced societies where racial and ethnic minorities exist, a similar process must take place. It is not enough to talk neither of class struggle and class solidarity-nor of Lenin’s pronouncement about the “Negro.”  For as pointed out by Claude McKay in “Soviet Russia and the Negro”:

There were no problems of the submerged lower classes and the suppressed national minorities of the old Russia that could bear comparison with the grievous position of millions of Negroes in the United States today.

The Marxists in America resist this need to have Marxism “thought out again.” They resist this rethinking in spite of the fact that the orthodox Marxist line holds nothing or nearly nothing for the Fourth World Community. “On to the Revolution!” these Marxists shout to the working class masses. But, when they turn around, they find that no one is standing with them. Still they shout “Orthodoxy! Orthodoxy!” They must be admired for their persistence if not for their political vision. If the Marxists were honest they would admit that even Marx and Engels had serious problems with “colonial peoples.” Marx considered the people of India to be “oriental despots” and the Chinese to be “stupid.” Engels considered the Mexicans to be “lazy” and the Algerians “dirty.” Is it any wonder that with these insights by the fathers of Marxism that their children have a blind spot when it comes to race?

The world has changed much since 1917 and even more since 1848. Yes, the general conflict between capital and labor still exists. But the character of both the working class and capitalism has changed. There are now sectors of the working class that have become regressive and reactionary. Nowhere more is this apparent than among the last vestiges of the white industrial worker in America. Other sectors of the working class are more vibrant or at least retain the potential for struggle. 

Fourth World workers fall into the latter category simple because they are the most oppressed and exploited sector of the American working class. But the struggle of the Fourth World can not be won in America unless a sizable portion of the white working class is won over or at least neutralized. And this is the role of the white Left, Marxist or otherwise. Racism must be fought first and then there will be enough class solidarity to transform the entire American political apparatus. But, if the Marxist Left denies their role as fighters for racial justice and continue to cling to an outdated orthodoxy, they will find themselves like Marx and Lenin artifacts of a by-gone epoch.

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The Fourth World and the Marxists

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posted 26 December 2005 / update 3 July 2008




Home  Jonathan Scott Table   Amin Sharif Table  Conversations with Kind Friends   Katrina New Orleans Flood Index

Related files:  The Fourth World and the Marxists  Paris Is Burning  Lessons from France   Letters from Young Activists  The Venezuelan Revolution   Responses to Jean Baudrillard   

The Fourth World: In the Belly of the Beast    Big Easy Blues  New Orleans: The American Nightmare   Black Middle Class and a Party for the Poor  The Day the Devil Has Won


Election Day Returns   Third World Traveler

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